The 1873 World’s Fair and Turkey’s European Aspirations

Ottoman armies failed to conquer early modern Vienna, but in the 19th century the empire returned to this gateway to Europe — and made a new effort at integration

The 1873 World’s Fair and Turkey’s European Aspirations
An image from “Elbise-i Ottomaniyye,” a volume containing photographic depictions of Turks in their customary attire that was published for visitors to the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. (Boston Public Library)

For centuries, European monarchs feared the advance of Turkish armies, the so-called “scourge of God,” as Ottoman sultans relentlessly extended their rule in southeastern Europe. By 1529, Suleyman the Magnificent was at the outskirts of Vienna. He bade his cavalry storm the walls. Unexpectedly, they faltered.

“The murmuring Tyrant was forc’d to raise his Siege,” one chronicler recorded, but it was a temporary reprieve. Suleyman withdrew but campaigned elsewhere, enlarging Ottoman territory to envelop Hungary, Armenia and North Africa. After his reign, expansion slowed, yet the Ottomans remained a potent military power, retaining their designs on Central Europe. Sure enough, Vienna, “the bulwark of Germany, and … of all Christendom” according to one of its denizens, faced Ottoman armies again in 1683. This time, the forces of the Holy Roman Empire comprehensively routed the invaders, shattering the Ottomans’ reputation for invincibility. Twice defeated, it seemed the Turks would never again threaten Vienna.

In 1873, the Ottomans returned to the city but in entirely different circumstances. They came at the invitation of Emperor Franz Joseph, who was hosting the Vienna World’s Fair, the latest in the new tradition of “universal expositions,” where nations showcased their respective cultures and industrial outputs, which had begun in 1851 with Britain’s Great Exhibition. Franz Joseph was in a magnanimous mood. Celebrating 25 years on the Habsburg throne, he was positioning his realm, which stretched from the Dalmatian coast to Bohemia, from the Italian Alps to the Carpathians and the border of Transylvania, as a meeting ground between East and West. The gates of Vienna, once a bulwark to interlopers from the East, were now flung open, with the emperor granting Eastern empires — Russian, Ottoman and Japanese — more exhibition space than they had ever before received at a European exposition.

The Ottomans grasped the opportunity with both hands, eager to use this “universal” platform to project an image of a self-confident empire that would negate their “sick man of Europe” reputation. They had two main aims in participating in Vienna. The first was to showcase their European credentials, the second to demonstrate a cohesive Ottoman identity that brought together a diversity of peoples with shared goals and common interests. The curios and palace treasures they exhibited in Vienna certainly made a big impression, but any hearts and minds won were not long retained — many Europeans continued to view the Ottomans as outsiders. This did not put a stop to Turkish attempts at closer engagement and acceptance within Europe. Yet 150 years later, after countless stumbles on the road to European integration, could it be that the Turks have finally abandoned their European aspirations?

Vienna wasn’t the first time the Ottomans had made an appearance at a European world’s fair. Six years earlier, Sultan Abdulaziz himself had attended the Paris Universal Exposition as a guest of Napoleon III. Such was the excitement that one French journalist declared that there were now two types of Parisians— “those who had seen the sultan, and those who had not.” Yet apparently some were underwhelmed at how Abdulaziz comported himself. He did not conform to type as an Oriental potentate, placidly attending official events in Paris and, apart from a fez, even wearing European dress. Mark Twain, himself a visitor to Europe, caught a glimpse of the sultan but was more scathing in his assessment, calling him “black-eyed … unprepossessing” and declaring that he had the demeanor of a butcher.

Turkish historian Ilber Ortayli argues that Abdulaziz’s trip to Europe was “not a journey to travel and learn … but a journey to directly influence the European public.” Clearly, he made an impression, and clearly European attitudes toward the Ottomans were changing. When he ventured to London after the Paris exposition, The Times celebrated that the sultan, a figure who “little more than a century ago was the dread of Europe,” had arrived on British shores. This did not necessarily mean Europeans accepted the Ottomans as equals or had a sense of affinity with them. Le Figaro in Paris reported, “Now that we are not afraid of Turks, Arabs and Saracens … we take the Orient for a theatre.”

At the time, the Ottomans were committed to the series of reforms known as the Tanzimat. This process, intended to consolidate the empire after a period of steady decline, encompassed attempts to modernize the legal, administrative and political systems, generally by emulating European ideas and models. Sultan Abdulaziz, who had reigned since 1861, was a keen proponent of these reforms, and introduced several more innovations to the empire, among them the civil code, postage stamps and railways. The only Ottoman sultan to undertake a diplomatic tour of Western Europe, he traveled through Naples, Marseille, Paris, London, Vienna and Budapest, and was thus keenly aware of the material advances of the West.

Palace dignitaries and bureaucrats alike looked upon events like the Vienna fair as settings in which to showcase the historical and cultural legacies of the imperial realm, and to present an upbeat picture of it as politically cohesive and steadily modernizing. Plans for the exhibition were instigated well in advance under the watchful eye of Ibrahim Edhem Pasha, the minister for public works. His son Osman Hamdi Bey was a commissary in Vienna, maintaining regular correspondence with the minister for foreign affairs in Istanbul, and the architect who had created Sultan Abdulaziz’s signature project, Ciragan Palace, was retained to design the Ottoman pavilions.

Initial extravagant plans were trimmed somewhat because of financial pressures, but the Ottoman presentation in Vienna, three times bigger than that at the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition, included a coffee house, a “bedesten” (covered marketplace), a Turkish house and a replica of the Ahmed III fountain in Istanbul. Accompanying these were a display of jewels from the Imperial Treasury in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, ethnographic exhibits and three lavishly illustrated monographs. The most substantial of the volumes was the “Usul-i Mimari,” an examination of Ottoman architecture. Another penned by the director of the Imperial Museum of Antiquities was a guidebook to Istanbul. The third, the “Elbise-i Ottomaniyye,” contained photographic plates depicting models from a range of social, ethnic and religious groups wearing their customary attire.

While the Topkapi treasures were bling aimed at attracting crowds, historian Ahmet Ersoy argues that these volumes were intended as “academic supplement[s] to the ethnographic, architectural, and archaeological exhibits in the Ottoman section and were meant to testify to the professed ‘humanitarian and progressive’ ideals of the Ottoman exposition agenda.” The architectural volume highlighted landmark buildings, detailing the history of Ottoman architecture alongside technical drawings and lithographic plates. Meanwhile, the “Elbise,” which Ersoy notes was written in the scholarly format and emulated the artistic sensibilities of high-end European publications, supplemented a carefully curated display of costumes from across the Ottoman domains, raising it from a collection of curios to a documentary endeavor conforming to the conventions of the new science of ethnography. In his preface to the “Elbise,” Hamdi Bey wrote that it would be “highly beneficial not only for artists, but, above all, for economists and researchers who work towards achieving the well-being of society.”

The conceptualization and presentation of the “Elbise” offer insight into the two main goals of the Ottoman involvement in the world’s fair. The first was to reinforce the Ottomans’ European credentials. In his preface to the “Elbise,” Hamdi Bey, who had been educated in Paris, highlighted that members of all religious and national groups within the imperial domain were “Europeanized.” The volume was divided into three sections — Turkey-in-Europe, Ottoman Islands, Turkey-in-Asia — and the text provided deep historical perspectives that highlighted episodes from Greek and Roman antiquity and stressed continuity to the Ottoman present. In this way the models sporting Ottoman costumes, whether Muslim Istanbulites, Jewish merchants or Bulgarian mountain folk, were situated within a European continuum.

In parallel to this, the mannequins, models and photographic plates exhibited in Vienna were intended to redress misconceptions of the Ottoman Empire that were common at the time. Europeans generally understood the empire and its peoples through Orientalist writings and artworks that distorted and exaggerated, conveying cliches of backwardness, listlessness and eroticism. English traveler Alexander Kinglake, upon arriving in Ottoman territory, declared that he had left behind “wheel-going Europe,” while John Reid wrote that Turks were preoccupied with smoking pipes and were inclined to indolence. Elias Habesci had earlier declared that the Ottomans were in terminal decline due to, among other things, “despotism on the part of the rulers” and “superstition and voluptuousness,” while paintings such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ “The Turkish Bath” and “Odalisque With Slave” were indicative of a European fascination with the harem, incorrectly imagined to be a place of unrestrained sensuality. In curating the ethnographic displays in Vienna, and in a subsequent career as a painter, Hamdi Bey sought to convey an alternative vision, a fully rounded picture of Ottoman life that rendered the Ottoman peoples with dignity and humanity, rather than as exotic caricatures for the judgment and titillation of European audiences.

The second goal of the “Elbise” and the Ottoman exhibition overall was to present an image of a cohesive and unified imperial realm. A key idea within the Tanzimat reforms was that of the unity of ethnic elements (“ittihad-i anasir”), promoted through the idea of “Ottomanism,” which would theoretically bind together disparate ethnic and religious groups. The 74 photographic plates of the “Elbise,” shot in Edhem Pasha’s home, depicted Ottoman life from Istanbul, with “one foot in Europe, the other in Asia,” to the Syrian desert and the mountains of Epirus. Some photographs seemed deliberately orchestrated to exemplify diversity. As an example, one image from Thessaloniki brought together Jewish, Muslim and Bulgarian Orthodox women. Osman Hamdi Bey wrote that the collected images demonstrated the appropriateness of the costumes of a “sakka” (water-carrier), a “kaikdji” (boatman), a “hamal” (porter), a Bulgarian peasant and an Arab chief to the climates of their regions. Despite the diversity on show, he asserted that “lively sentiments of solidarity” were apparent; the overarching theme, he claimed, was one of “variety within unity.”

Here were the Ottomans, finally in Vienna, a dynasty no longer in the ascendant but in decline, indeed, the “sick man of Europe” attempting to project an identity that demonstrated membership in the family of European nations and to forge unity among a diverse citizenry at home. How successful were they in achieving these goals?

They did not conquer Vienna, as such, but there can be little doubt that the Ottoman offering impressed visitors. The Austrian press reported that the opening of the exhibition of valuables from the Imperial Treasury — never before seen outside the Topkapi Palace — attracted an enormous crowd that required the police to maintain order. A correspondent for The Times enthused about “the Sultan’s treasure,” and Emperor Franz Joseph himself attended the opening, making appreciative comments all the while. Hamdi Bey later wrote that the emperor took particular interest in “the fine arms, many of which belonged to our illustrious sovereigns.” Publicity material declared that the Ottoman precious objects would “scarcely be equalled in value” by anything else on display at the fair. Nevertheless, tendencies toward Orientalist cliches were hard to subdue. Inevitably some visitors drew allusions to the “1,001 Nights” and indolent, hookah-smoking Istanbul bazaar traders. Indeed, negative stereotypes about Turks were not entirely dispelled, as exemplified by the enduring popularity of the children’s book “Hatschi Bratschis Luftballon,” published later by Viennese author Franz Karl Ginzkey, depicting a Turkish character who kidnaps children and whisks them away to Turkey.

Conflicting themes of fascination and xenophobia had long persisted in European attitudes toward Turks. Vienna’s enthusiasm for the Ottoman jewels mirrored the excited response from French crowds six years earlier. But where French journalists thought of the Ottoman realm as a theater, European policymakers saw things differently. When Moscow had gained a foothold in the Black Sea in the 1770s at the expense of the Ottomans, some European diplomats worried that the Russians might advance on Istanbul. Their concern arose not out of sympathy for the sultans, but from fear of a power vacuum if their empire collapsed. A weakened Ottoman empire would undermine European stability. The Ottomans remained strategically significant because they occupied a pivotal location at the intersection of the European, Asian and African landmasses. Thus, the “Eastern question” arose: the conundrum of how to maintain the balance of power on the fringes of Europe amid Ottoman decline, and as European powers themselves were jockeying for advantage.

In 1856, at the Treaty of Paris following the Crimean War, the Ottoman Empire formally became a member of the Concert of Europe, but it is doubtful that the leaders and diplomats of the great powers ever accepted the Ottomans as Europeans. The historian Michelle Campos notes that some Europeans remained determined to “drive the Turk back to Asia.” As nationalist ideals spread among Christian communities in the Balkans, the great powers extended material and moral support to intelligentsias in Serbia, Romania, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Macedonia, fueling their aspirations for independence. Abdulaziz was bankrupted in 1875 and he suspended payments on Ottoman bonds, leaving many European bondholders high and dry and alienating French and British policy makers. They then refused to support the Ottomans, who had been an ally in Crimea, when uprisings broke out in Bulgaria. Spiraling military and economic crises led to the deposition of Abdulaziz and his death in mysterious circumstances in 1876. Despite the excited reception afforded him by Parisian crowds in 1867 and delight over dazzling Ottoman jewels exhibited in Vienna, few Europeans marked his passing.

The goal of forging unity among the diverse Ottoman citizenry, as outlined in the “Elbise,” also came to nothing. In the years to come, former provinces of “Turkey-in-Europe” from Albania to Romania broke away, and the empire met its demise in 1922 following invasion and interventions from Europe: Britain, France, Italy, Russia and newly independent Greece. Only 50 years after the triumphant exhibition in Vienna and the carefully choreographed images of Muslims, Jews and Bulgarians standing side by side, an independent Republic of Turkey was established, but there would be none of the “diversity within unity” that Hamdi Bey extolled. Modern Turkey was firmly rooted in the idea of ethnic uniformity.

The emergence of the successor state to the Ottoman Empire did not spell an end to European aspirations. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding president, was determined to modernize and Westernize his fellow Turks. He introduced the Latin alphabet and the metric system and banished the fez as “preposterous garb” unworthy of “civilized man.” Cold War Turkey adopted a pro-European orientation. In 1952, it became a member of NATO. It signed an association agreement in 1963 with the European Economic Community and in 2005 began accession talks with the European Union (EU). At that time, under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey was also lauded for creating a political model that reconciled economic growth, religious observance and free and fair elections.

Yet European policymakers have been divided over whether to admit Turkey to the EU. Britain’s Tony Blair was for Turkey’s membership, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy against it. Meanwhile, overhyped historical prejudices that portray Turks as enemies persist among some Europeans. The specter of Vienna is still conjured at times. A Dutch EU commissioner once argued against admitting Turkey to the bloc as it would speed the “Islamization of Europe,” meaning that the “deliverance of Vienna in 1683 will have been in vain.” And unscrupulous operators resuscitate the idea of the Turkish “threat” in order to gain political advantage, such as Brexit campaigners who used the possibility of Turkey joining the EU to augment the “leave” vote.

For their part, many Turks have grown frustrated with Europe after decades of fruitless accession talks. Some accuse Europe of trying to undermine Turkey as its economy has grown and it has amassed regional clout. Erdogan recently declared that Turkey could “part ways” with the EU in response to a European Parliament report critical of human rights violations and judicial processes. After celebrating the centenary of the modern Turkish state in October last year, he declared Turkey’s aspiration to play a leadership role in Eurasia.

Some 150 years after Franz Joseph’s world’s fair, the goals of the Ottoman exhibition remain unfulfilled. The idea of forging a multi-ethnic identity has long since been abandoned but the Turks’ westward tilt has proven more enduring, the aspiration being integration with rather than conquest of Europe. Yet despite Turkish overtures and some episodes of constructive engagement, underlying impediments prevent the consummation of the relationship. As happened during the Ottoman era, Turkey may be recognized as strategically important to Europe, but full-bodied acceptance of Turkey as belonging in Europe has not been forthcoming. Europeans see it as peripheral, not of Europe itself, and recent political currents have pushed Turks to look elsewhere for strategic, economic and cultural partnerships. Erdogan’s threat to part ways with Europe contains elements of political theater, but it plays to the dashed hopes and rising frustrations of his constituents. Whether it means they will entirely forsake their European dreams remains to be seen.

Become a member today to receive access to all our paywalled essays and the best of New Lines delivered to your inbox through our newsletters.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy